Econostrum | Economic News in the Mediterranean

"Morocco no longer accepts the Spanish position on Western Sahara”

Written by Interview by Frédéric Dubessy on Tuesday, June 15th 2021 à 13:20 | Read 322 times

SPAIN/MOROCCO. Head of the Geopolitics and Global Security Department at CIDOB, Spain's oldest international relations centre, Eduard Soler is its Mena referent. In an exclusive interview granted to on the occasion of his speech to the members of the Euromed-IHEDN association, he examines the love/hate relationship between Spain and Morocco.

Eduard Soler analyses the relations between Spain and Morocco in detail (photo: Cidob)
Eduard Soler analyses the relations between Spain and Morocco in detail (photo: Cidob) How do you explain the importance given to Mediterranean policy by successive powers in Spain?

Eduard Soler: Firstly, because of its proximity, but also because of its identity. Spain is both in Europe and in Africa. As the crow flies, Barcelona is as close to Algiers as it is to Madrid (500 km). The country's foreign policy priorities are threefold: Europe, the Mediterranean and Latin America. This premise does not change much, regardless of the government. We have a special relationship with Morocco. Special means that it can go very well or very badly!

Is the special relationship between Spain and Morocco explained more by geographical proximity (18 km apart) or by the fact that it is a former colony?

E.S.: When we think of the non-European Mediterranean, it is clear that Morocco is the most important Mediterranean country for Spain. We have moved from an Arab policy under Francoism to a Mediterranean policy with democracy. More than a foreign policy issue, this relationship is more about our immediate proximity, our history and our shared borders. Many Spaniards live in Morocco, 800 Spanish companies are based there. The size of our embassy in Rabat is comparable to those in Brussels and Washington.

Just as we can speak of a diplomacy of kings, there is what we call a mattress of interests with Morocco. It is not possible to avoid crises, but we know how to cushion the effects in the name of our mutual interests.

"The problems with Morocco are not just Spanish, but European”

What are the current relations between the two countries?
E.S.: We are experiencing the most significant and perhaps the most dangerous crisis since 2002 and the Persimmon Island* incident. Our relationship is strong, strategic, intense, and also tense from time to time. Like today with the hospitalisation of Brahim Ghali, leader of the Polisario, in Spain and the sudden influx of migrants in Ceuta. We are the only Western European country that has to deal with border problems with a southern Mediterranean country. These problems with Morocco are not only Spanish, but European.
These two facts are not the cause of the current crisis, but a theatre chosen to bring it out, because it has been brewing for three years. Moroccan nationalism is instrumentalised around the conflicts with Spain. What is changing is Morocco's expectations because of US demands for recognition of Israel. So Morocco is putting pressure on other states.
In general, the hot spots are Ceuta and Melilla and Western Sahara. Morocco considers the Spanish government to be too close to the Sahrawis. However, Spain cannot recognise Morocco's sovereignty over Western Sahara without negotiating with the Polisario. Just as it cannot depart from the UN position on the issue. And Morocco no longer accepts this.  Spain does not have a free hand to change this.

The high-level governmental summit between the two countries has been postponed several times and has not taken place since 2015. Economic relations continue to be very close, but not normalised between the two governments.

"Spain has an interest in Algeria and Morocco getting along"

What could be Spain's role in bringing Algeria and Morocco together?

E.S.: Spain does not have the means or the capacity to change the policies of these two countries. Nor does France, for that matter. And it will be very difficult for the United States, China or Russia to do so. Madrid can try, in association with others, to create favourable conditions and to make the voices carrying the messages for a return to normal relations better heard.

The European Union should insist on all the gains it would offer. The Maghrebian diasporas, especially in France, can also help bring about a rapprochement. All this is not for today, but it is the moment to prepare it.

Spain has an interest in Algeria and Morocco getting along. They are our neighbours. If a problem arises between both or if their relationship improves, we suffer the consequences or we benefit.

* Located eight kilometres west of the Spanish enclave of Ceuta in Morocco, the Persil Islet (or Leïla Islet) is a disputed territory between Morocco and Spain. In July 2002, six armed Moroccan auxiliary forces established a checkpoint on this islet to better combat drug trafficking and illegal immigration. Spain considers this establishment as an invasion of Spanish territory and launches a military operation to chase away the Moroccan soldiers.

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